David's Reviews > Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America

Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin
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's review
Aug 04, 2012

really liked it
Read from August 04 to 11, 2012

Searching for Whitopia is, as you could probably guess from the title, a book about race. To be specific, the author, Rich Benjamin, visited three different extremely white communities for three months each, to interview the people living there and get a sense of the place. Oh, and he's black.

There are essentially two main "themes" that run through this book. One is Benjamin relating his experience in the "Whitopias." He relates details of the people he met, while also delving into the history and geography. What I like the most of this theme is the obvious empathy Benjamin has for the people he meets. While he holds an extremely obvious disdain for the places where they live--and he explicitly lays out his issues with homogenous communities at the end--he has an equally obvious fondness for the people themselves. He doesn't demonize them; to the contrary, he makes you like them as much as he does. At one point, he even goes to a weekend retreat for white separatists (who emphasize, with arguable plausibility, that they don't hate black people, they just like white people), and the people there are almost uniformly kind and polite.

The second theme is Benjamin talking about America's diversifying population, its consequences, and how it relates to the Whitopia phenomenon. The main value of this section lies in its trying to move on the simplistic individualistic analysis of racism. As a key passage in the book states:

Interpersonal racism exists between people. Institutional racism exists within institutions. Structural racism exists across institutions, public policy, and other important domains (education, the judiciary, real estate, etc.).

The issue with Whitopians is not that most of the people who live there are racist (although many of them are)--indeed, the main point of this book is that most Whitopians are actually extremely nice, polite, and ultimately fairly ordinary, even the ones Benjamin shares substantial political disagreement with. Rather, the priorities of the culture combine with governmental policy to make a segregated nation a reality--and in America, when you separate the races they are not treated equally. Benjamin ends the book with a listing of how Whitopias hurt everyone, the people living there and the society at large, and calls on us to rebuild the public sphere and work to integrate our presently Balkanized country.

Overall, I think this is an excellent book. It was very well-written and the topics it discusses are interesting and important. It certainly has its weaknesses--golf probably did not deserve its own chapter, and while I understand it's a mass-market book Benjamin did not go into enough detail about his political philosophy espoused at the end as I would have liked him to (what was in there was extremely interesting, but I want more!). He likely could've done a better job linking its chapters together into one coherent narrative. Still, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an open mind and an interest in the topic.
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